Let’s Talk About Our Tools

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Imagine you wanted to put a nail into the wall to hang up a framed photograph. You check the toolbox for your hammer, only to find that it has changed. It’s covered with advertising that you’re not interested in. Total strangers added graffiti. The actual head has shrunk drastically, making it unusable for the task at hand. But the hammer suddenly features all kinds of additions. The fact that it now oozes vast amounts of oil might be most troubling: your whole toolbox is filled with oil.

You decide to call the company but never make it through to a real person. You go online to check what happened to your hammer. You find a number of somewhat creepy videos in which people who might or might not have a normal social life try to convince you that they love hammers, but oil is where it’s at these days.

The above obviously is absurd. But it’s not any less absurd than what has happened on Instagram. Years ago, you could share photographs knowing that the people who followed you would see them. In turn, you would see what people shared whom you followed. That idea is long gone.

Instead, because its makers decided to copy a number of popular competitors, the app now contains any number of things that have nothing to do with photo sharing. In fact, the latest “update” (the company’s word choice) was so atrocious that even the Kardashians complained about it.

Of Instagram’s many problems for photographers (the censorship, the algorithm that doesn’t show your material to people who follow you, the “reels” nonsense, and the erratic ways in which things are constantly changed without user input), there is one that seems rather minor. But its outcome is very toxic as well. Instagram not only fuels nasty spats in its comment section, it also draws much too much attention to itself.

As a consequence, being on Instagram is a draining experience that is detrimental to one’s personal health. The other day, I noticed how draining the experience is yet again.

Having decided to phase out Instagram, I went back to Tumblr. Much like a lot of other people, I had used Tumblr years ago. It was an incredible site, but, alas, it got bought out and ruined. Now there are new owners, so it looks like a feasible option to share photographs again. I set up a new account, and I downloaded the app.

The next morning, I looked through Instagram, and then I looked through Tumblr. The difference could not have been more striking. While I was getting increasingly aggravated on Instagram, given that I had to scroll through about 90% garbage to find stuff I had actually subscribed to, on Tumblr, it was the exact opposite of that. Seeing the difference made me realize to what extent Instagram has changed over the past few years.

It also made me realize how much sheer crap I had accepted on Instagram. If anyone was to blame for the mess, it wasn’t Mark Zuckerberg and his minions. It was me. After all, I had decided to continue using the app.

But I really don’t want to focus more on the garbage site that is Instagram. Even the idea of writing more words about a site that obviously doesn’t care about photographers makes my blood pressure go up.

Instead, I want to focus on something else: as photographers, why do we stick with a site that very obviously doesn’t care at all about us, that doesn’t do what we need, and that we ultimately hate?

The usual answer I hear is: there are not alternatives. I think that’s a bad answer.

I’m not particular interested in discussing the merits of alternatives, because I’m after something different. Any of these sites/app are tools. We use them because they do things for us (at least that’s the idea). They’re like hammers. If I need to get a nail into a wall, I’m going to pick a hammer. The hammer will do the job. Perfect.

I think that photographers in general are not very good at choosing the right tools that work for them. Photographers will stick with Instagram even though it’s not really a photography-sharing site any longer. Similarly, photographers will also decide to use view cameras despite the fact that they’re incredibly expensive and cumbersome. Digital cameras have long achieved a degree of quality that makes film cameras obsolete, and yet many photographers will work themselves up into a frenzy when someone dares to say this.

My point here is not to discuss the merits of film or digital or the merits of Instagram. Instead, I want to point out that we should pick the tools that are right for us. We should pick the tools that work for us — instead of the tools that make us work for them. Every photographer will have to do this on their own, assessing tools based on what they need. In order to do that, they have to do a simple cost-benefit analysis.

I have been present in many discussions around view cameras. Those never included a cost-benefit analysis. Instead, there was what came across as simple dogma mixed with a very selective focus on specific benefits that somehow were turned into the most important criteria.

That’s not a very useful approach. In fact, it’s very likely to lead you into the situation where you stick to Instagram even though you hate it, or you insist on using film even as with the money you could easily get a high-quality digital camera that would increase your productivity by huge amounts.

I’m writing this as someone who has experience with all of this. I have justified my presence on Instagram partly by thinking that as a critic, it would help me see what people are up to. But up until last week, I hadn’t asked myself whether I can and want to justify dealing with associated costs.

When I started using Tumblr, I noticed that there was a lot less to see. But the overall experience is so much better. As of now, some of the benefits offered on Instagram are absent. But the costs are much lower. That’s what I want — and need.

Using a tool such as Instagram, Tumblr, or any other social-media site should not be a drain on one’s mental health, something one dreads doing every single day. Instead, it should be a source of joy, of gratification.

Years ago, I decided to switch from a film camera that I loved very much to a digital camera. I can’t say that the camera in question (a digital SLR) is particularly attractive. But I realized that what I had stubbornly held on to (the supposed quality of film) actually created a lot of costs (in terms of money and time) that severely limited what I was able to do. With the new camera I was and am able to take pictures easily. Even as I hated figuring out how to do it, my productivity exploded. I would have never been able to produce a photobook had I stuck with that film camera.

Again, it all comes down to a cost-benefit analysis: what are the costs, what are the benefits? And then you have to be very clear about whether the benefits really outweigh the costs, or whether you’re not tipping the scale.

While teaching, time and again I have come across photographers essentially making bad choices because they stubbornly stick to a tool that doesn’t work for them. I’ve had students stick to film cameras, as a result of which their productivity was minimal. But I’ve also had students stick to high-end digital cameras that resulted in the very same outcome. It’s not about film or digital. Instead, the question is: do you have the camera that is the right tool for you? If it is not, ditch it, and pick the one that is.

This also applies to white-cube galleries or photobooks. They’re tools to disseminate your work (and possibly make you some money if you’re lucky). Typically, photographers don’t approach them as such and, again, allow themselves to work for their tools — instead of the other way around.

If you read my recent interview with Rob Hornstra, you’ll see a photographer who has thought about this and adapted his practice to what he needs for his work. Even if your choices might be very different, I’m convinced that 90% of all photographers could learn a lot from how Rob approaches the use of his tools.

If you’re a photographer, make a cost-benefit analysis for the tools you’re using on a somewhat regular basis. If there is a tool where the costs outweigh the benefits, be prepared to make a change it — even if that means adopting a new tool that initially you might not like.

Obviously, I’m aware that we’re all just human. We all make decisions that aren’t necessarily based on what’s good for us. But we do have the capacity to check what we’re doing, which at least theoretically gives us a chance to help us make better decisions.

Ditch the tools that don’t work for you — after a careful analysis of their costs and benefits. That’s what it all comes down to.